Amandla Sten­berg: I’m still find­ing my voice

‘Hate U Give’ ac­tress wants to bring hon­esty to screen

The Commercial Appeal - - Mlife - Jake Coyle AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

NEW YORK – Ac­tress Amandla Sten­berg was named af­ter a 1989 Miles Davis al­bum – a lush, African-tinged funk fu­sion that takes its name from the Zulu and Xhosa word for “power.”

In South Africa un­der apartheid, “amandla” was – and still is – a ral­ly­ing cry against op­pres­sion. It’s a lot for Sten­berg to live up to.

“You think?” she asks, laugh­ing and thank­ing her mother for the heavy re­spon­si­bil­ity. Then she turns more se­ri­ous. “It’s some­thing I keep very close to my heart.”

Sten­berg has al­ready done much to em­body her name­sake. At 19, she has be­come the face of a new Hol­ly­wood, one that fuses the per­sonal with the po­lit­i­cal.

She is a con­fi­dent, so­cial me­dia-savvy, out­spo­ken, young, gay, African-Amer­i­can woman who, like many oth­ers of her gen­er­a­tion, has lit­tle in­ter­est in con­tribut­ing to the stereo­types or bi­ases of the past.

In “The Hate U Give,” Sten­berg has found a per­fect amal­ga­ma­tion of art and ac­tivism. Based on Angie Thomas’ Black Lives Mat­ter-in­spired 2017 best-seller, Ge­orge Till­man Jr.’s drama is about 16-year-old Starr Carter, who – as Sten­berg did grow­ing up in South Los An­ge­les – shut­tles be­tween worlds – her pre­dom­i­nantly black neigh­bor­hood and her largely white, priv­i­leged high school. (The movie opened in lim­ited re­lease Oct. 5, ex­pands Fri­day and opens in wide re­lease Oct. 18.)

When she sees a white po­lice of­fi­cer shoot and kill her un­armed friend, Starr must de­cide whether to speak out.

Starr even­tu­ally finds her voice. Stern­berg has be­gun to find hers, too, but says she’s not done grow­ing yet.

“I’m find­ing my voice right now, as we speak,” she said, smil­ing, in a re­cent in­ter­view.

It’s a theme that Sten­berg re­turns to again and again: That what­ever la­bel has been put on her isn’t nec­es­sar­ily who she is – or who she will re­main. “I ex­pe­ri­ence in­ter­sec­tions of iden­tity,” she says. “Every­one does.”

Even the word “ac­tivist” doesn’t sit quite right with her.

“I made a video that went vi­ral, and since then, ev­ery­thing I’ve said or done has been politi­cized,” says Sten­berg, who gained fame from her break­through role of Rue in “The Hunger Games.”

The video, ti­tled “Don’t Cash Crop on My Corn­rows,” was a high school his­tory pro­ject in which Stern­berg an­a­lyzed the ap­pro­pri­a­tion of black cul­ture. Af­ter Sten­berg posted it on her Tum­blr, it was watched by mil­lions. One viewer was Thomas, who was in the midst of writ­ing her young-adult novel.

“I re­mem­ber watch­ing it, and I was like: That’s ex­actly who I want Starr to be,” Thomas says about Sten­berg and her un­fold­ing ca­reer. “I can’t wait un­til 10 years from now when I’m like, ‘Yep, she was in my adap­ta­tion. That’s when it re­ally took off.’ I’m go­ing to have brag­ging points on that one.”

Sten­berg’s ed­u­ca­tion be­gan with her mother, who schooled her on the likes of “Roots,” “The Color Pur­ple” and Nina Si­mone. From the age of 10, she com­muted from Leimert Park to the Wild­wood School near Santa Mon­ica. About four years ago, she be­gan to feel em­bold­ened by oth­ers on so­cial me­dia.

On In­sta­gram, she has been a force­ful voice on di­ver­sity and gen­der equal­ity. Sten­berg has said she re­moved her­self from con­tention for a “Black Pan­ther” role be­cause she felt the part shouldn’t go to a light­skinned woman of color. When some ques­tioned whether Starr should also be dark-skinned, Sten­berg re­sponded thought­fully about “my role in the quest for on­screen di­ver­sity and the sen­si­tiv­ity I must have to­wards the col­orism that I do not ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Sten­berg came out in an in­ter­view ear­lier this year (“Yep, I’m gay,” she said). Last week, af­ter watch­ing Chris­tine Blasey Ford’s tes­ti­mony, Sten­berg penned an oped for Teen Vogue about her two ex­pe­ri­ences of sex­ual as­sault.

“I would love to change the fab­ric of Hol­ly­wood,” she says, laugh­ing at the bravado of how that sounds. “I’m re­ally just be­ing my­self. I also think there’s a huge move­ment that’s been started and con­tin­ues that’s com­pletely in­de­pen­dent of me but that I’ve been in­cluded in now, that’s been well on its way for a long time.”

Much of “The Hate U Give” in­volves Starr’s re­la­tion­ship with her fa­ther, a re­formed drug dealer played com­mand­ingly by Rus­sell Hornsby. His men­tor­ing of Sten­berg, she says, mir­rored the film. Hornsby’s reg­u­lar flow of ad­vice was “the best tough love I’ve ever re­ceived,” she says.

“She’s a beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful spirit,” Hornsby says of Sten­berg, whose own fa­ther is Dan­ish. “The role and her ac­tivism and where she’s in in life, ev­ery­thing is just per­fectly aligned. This is the role she was meant to do.”

The pro­duc­tion wasn’t easy. Sten­berg says she had resid­ual trauma for months fol­low­ing the shoot­ing scene and still vividly re­calls see­ing fake blood on her shoe.

Worse, some scenes needed to be reshot long af­ter the fact, when it was re­vealed that Kian Law­ley, a white ac­tor who had been cast as Starr’s boyfriend, had pre­vi­ously been video­taped in a racist tirade. He was re­cast. “The irony of that was not lost on us,” says Sten­berg.

What’s most strik­ing about the ac­tor, both on cam­era and off, is her preter­nat­u­ral poise. When she speaks about so­cial is­sues, she is just nat­u­rally ex­press­ing her­self. For a so-called fire­brand, she is gen­tle and warm.

“The world is be­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ized so quickly,” she adds. “It’s the first time as a black ac­tress that I’ve seen th­ese types of roles be avail­able to some­one who looks like me. Hope­fully, we can bring some hon­esty to the screen.”

Asked what she wants, Sten­berg ex­cit­edly re­sponds: “I want to di­rect!” But the main thing, she says, is that she doesn’t want to be con­fined by a me­dia-pre­scribed im­age.

She smiles. “And I want to have fun.”

Amandla Sten­berg stars in “The Hate U Give.” MATT LI­CARI/IN­VI­SION/AP

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